William H. Gass Symposium

Keynote presented by 2016 Matheson Lecturer and Washington University alumna Susan Bernofsky (MFA '90) of Columbia University
The first William Gass Symposium, held on September 23, 2016, focused on international writing.  The theme was fitting, given Gass’s founding of the International Writers Center at Washington University in 1990, and given the symposium’s focus on translation and its multilingual poetry reading.  As originally conceived by Washington University’s William Gass Fellow, Matthias Göritz and Associate Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature Ignacio Infante, the main idea behind the symposium was to recognize the crucial role played by Gass in promoting international writing in St. Louis and beyond, as well as to emphasize the importance of literary translation in Gass’s own work as arguably one of the most acclaimed American essayists and creative writers of his generation.  Sponsored by the Committee on Comparative Literature, Washington University Libraries, the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities, the day-long symposium highlighted the influence of Gass and brought together scholars and writers.

The program included welcome remarks by Director of Comparative Literature Lynne Tatlock, and papers by Matthias Göritz and Ignacio Infante.  Both Göritz and Infante broached the topic of translation, articulating the challenges of translating Gass’s works into other languages. As Infante argued in his talk, “Gass’s extremely relevant exploration of translation in this work has not received the critical attention that it deserves within the growing and expanding field of translation studies in general.” 

A roundtable discussion included both Göritz and Infante and two additional guests: Lorin Cuoco, who co-founded the International Writers Center with Gass, and Stephen Schenkenberg, who edited and published The Ear’s Mouth  Must Move: Essential Interviews of William H. Gass, as well as the Reading William Gass website.

The keyn© Caroline Whiteote speaker of the symposium was Susan Bernofksy, director of the program Literary Translation at Columbia at Columbia University’s MFA in Writing program.  She is also an alumna of Washington University’s MFA program, and during her talk, she recalled a seminar on Valéy she took with Gass while a student at Washington University.

The symposium then moved from Umrath Lounge to Olin Library, where visitors enjoyed an exhibit featuring the William H. Gass Papers and documents from the International Writers Center Archive.  Professor and Vice Provost Gerhild Williams gave opening remarks to the poetry reading, which included readings of Gass’s Rilke translations by Mary Jo Bang and Matthias Göritz as well as poems read by Latvian poet and translator Kārlis Vērdiņš and Slovenian poet and critic Katja Perat.  Both Vērdiņš and Perat are also Ph.D. students in Comparative Literature’s track for international writers.

Several local newspapers included stories on the symposium, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the RiverFront Times, and The Current (the University of Missouri-St. Louis’s student newspaper).

William H. Gass, PhD, is a world-renowned author and literary critic. He was the founder (in 1990) and first director of the university’s International Writers Center in Arts & Sciences — now known as The Center for the Humanities. Gass received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Washington University in 2005. He is the author of Omensetter’s Luck (1966), In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (1968), Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife (1968), Fiction and the Figures of Life (1971), On Being Blue (1976), The World Within the Word (1978), Habitations of the Word: Essays (1985), The Tunnel (1995), Finding a Form (1996), Cartesian Sonata (1998), Reading Rilke (1999), Tests of Time (2003), A Temple of Texts (2006), Life Sentences (2012), Middle C (2013), and Eyes (2015).

He has won several major literary awards during his career, including the National Book Critics Circle Award an unprecedented three times: in 1985 for Habitations of the Word; in 1996 for Finding a Form; and in 2003 for Tests of Time.   He also won the 1997 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award and the PEN/Nabokov Lifetime Achievement Award, which he has called his “most prized prize.” The Tunnel won the American Book Award in 1996 (and was produced by Lorin Cuoco as an audiobook as read by Gass in 2006).  Gass was awarded the PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award for the Art of the Essay in 2003.  A Temple of Texts (2006) won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, and Middle C (2013) won the 2015 William Dean Howells Award. In 2007, St. Louis University awarded Gass the St. Louis Literary Award.

Gass, who retired from teaching in 1999, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982 and to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983. He received an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction in 1975 and Medal of Merit for Fiction in 1979.